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NormanOak - Born a Black Diamond

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Artist: NormanOak

Album: Born a Black Diamond

Label: Secretly Canadian

Review date: Feb. 24, 2005

Who is NormanOak? According to the liner notes, he’s been a glacier, a pool of water, a coyote, and a tree. In reality he’s Chris Barth, singer and songwriter for Bloomington, Indiana’s The Impossible Shapes. Born a Black Diamond was recorded in 2003 as a side project. What Barth and his cohorts from The Impossible Shapes put down on cassette is a collection of skeletal songs that in their bare-bones simplicity and seemingly wide-eyed naiveté remind one of psychedelic campfire ditties. But these aren’t singalongs; the album is shot through with existential dread and uncertainty, lyrically and musically.

Pieces like “Even the Golden Child” and “Here They Are” are tight acoustic nuggets, built from rapid strumming, short and needling fingerpicked riffs and Barth’s multi-tracked vocals. “It is Impossible,” “Baby Trees,” and “Slow Explosion” are plugged-in bursts of maniacal, nearly mechanical backbeats and loping bass slithering around the melodies. Cutting a middle path are “The Curse” and “Watching Your House Burn,” both featuring malevolent throbbing pulses – from drums or bass – that appear then quickly recede.

As the album swerves back and forth stylistically, so does Barth’s NormanOak. The lyrics, seemingly sung from Oak’s perspective, express a dog-eared mysticism weak in the knees. “I got poems on my shelf,” Barth sings on “Watching our House Burn,” ”I pick one off and raise a spell / I got stuck in muddy jail /I wiped it all off and made off well /with soiled soles, a soggy smell.”

Taken with the spare arrangements, the character of NormanOak tries to fit big thoughts into little packages, and knows it’s tough go. ”I know that to try, it is remarkable / to lift a finger to speak or write,” he sings on “It is Impossible.” On “Slow Explosion” Oak casts himself as “the lone horn sounding as the universe explodes.” He’s simultaneously laughing at himself for trying, and celebrating his effort, leaving the listener gauge whether he’s serious or joking. If it’s the former, then Born a Black Diamond comes off as pretentious pseudo-prophecy; if it’s the latter then it’s irony that sabotages any meaning the record conveys.

Barth’s swooping, panicked voice, combined with the lyrics’ mystic bent paint NormanOak as a ranting mental patient, recently escaped and now singing for pennies in subways – a more deranged proponent of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s spooked school of broken-back spiritualism. Oak’s uncertainty, and the music’s abrupt shifts contribute to a queasy, ambiguous response. After a number of listens I’m still not sure if I should laugh with or at NormanOak. He seems like an intriguing guy; I just wouldn’t let him near my kids.

By Matthew Wuethrich

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